The Ancient Greek temple of Apollo at Delphi had an inscription in its forecourt that read γνῶθι σεαυτόν meaning “know thyself.” The inscription implies that most men have little self-insight and that contemplation and introspection leads to wisdom. Socrates took this to heart and declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
In his book A Fragile Life, the philosopher Todd May offers a highly interesting perspective on the different schools of thought at the heart of Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism. While these ancient systems of thought do offer many useful tools that can help us face adversity, they also idealize a certain form of invulnerability. The author argues that some desirable aspects of human life are to be found in our exposure to potential sources of suffering. I here expose May’s argument while reflecting on its significance as a modern way of life.
For the ancient Greeks, sôphrosune (σωφροσύνη) or temperance was a key virtue. The ancients understood that our emotions and desires can be excessive, and that a virtuous person must have a capacity for moderation. Sôphrosune was accordingly understood as something close to “self-restraint.” As with the other virtues, temperance is not innate; it must be learned. But what exactly does it mean, to be tempered and moderate in our endeavors? Is there something we can call a balanced life — not too wild and excessive, but also not too inhibited and frustrating?
Slave of the Passions
Can we really trust our emotions? The world seems full of people who end up tortured by their feelings. Can’t we just get rid of all that anger and sadness, all that guilt and envy, all that anxiety and delusional rage? Many ancient philosophies and religions aim to achieve this very goal through systems of control and repression, praising the benefits of having a non-emotional response to situations. But there are also very valid reasons for why we have the emotions we have, as the clinical psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse points out in his book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. It’s worth thinking about their implications for our well-being.
Two Modes of Living
There is likely no experience more human than that of feeling trapped by one’s circumstances. How people deal with this experience seems to vary enormously, something I realized after having read, in sequence, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road followed by Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. The two books somehow provide extremely different takes on how to escape one’s current condition.
Learning from the Extreme
When he was fourteen years old, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch witnessed the death of his older sister Sophie from tuberculosis, at a time when there was no treatment for the disease. The tragic event deeply affected the young Munch, who remained obsessed with it for much of his early adult life, painting and re-painting the moments before Sophie’s death in a canvas known as The Sick Child.
The Evolution of Mediocrity
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has for a long time been the most widely accepted secular explanation for how living organisms change over time. In the social sciences, however, Darwinism spawned a mire of theories on the role that evolutionary mechanisms play in shaping human society.
More than anything, there is widespread belief that competition filters out the weak and promotes the “survival of fittest,” and that markets select a certain class of talented and deserving people. Reality is more complex than this: many obviously talented and deserving people are not particularly successful in their pursuits, while many people with no apparent talent sometimes reap incredible rewards.
In Ancient Greece, a tyrant (τύραννος) was someone who seized absolute power over a city by force, without due consideration for tradition or law. The word did not necessarily have a pejorative connotation. Not all Greek tyrants were hated men; in fact, some were popular rulers in their time. But the worst of tyrants are remembered for their cruelty. They exemplify how unchecked power can easily degenerate into arbitrary rule.
Tyranny, I will argue, is something that can occur at different levels of society. The abuse of power is a danger that looms in all kinds of hierarchical relationships, not only in government. I have witnessed many situations where powerful managers treated their subordinates in a repulsive manner. Why is this type of small-scale tyranny so widespread? Is there anything one can do to avoid being affected by it? This essay explores how hierarchy inherently generates possibilities for tyrannical behavior to emerge, how thoughtful executives can forge securities against misrule, and what sovereign individuals can do to avoid the evils of hierarchy.
The Fog of War
The photo above was taken by Robert Capa, the only civilian photographer to follow the Allied troops landing at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Capa took 106 photos that day. But then something very unfortunate happened. Most of the pictures were destroyed in a processing accident. Only eleven survived. They are known as “The Magnificent Eleven.”
These photos — mostly blurred, surreal shots — convey the intensity and chaos experienced by soldiers on the front line as the invasion unfolded. In hindsight, it turns out that the invasion was a great success, but it certainly didn’t feel that way for the soldier when he first landed. That soldier stepped right into a fog of war, and into a dangerous and uncertain fate.
The Origins of Reason
What does it mean, to be rational? This is the question that Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber ask in their revolutionary book, The Enigma of Reason. This book was a complete revelation to me. It shattered some of my most deeply held beliefs about intelligence, and its implications for our understanding of human nature are profound. I here summarize some of its main ideas, weaving in some of my own thoughts along the way.